Friday, October 24, 2014

First Word: Jennifer Wickham: Cueca


The Cueca is the national dance of Chile.  For several weeks of every year, leading up to the eighteenth of September, you will hear the music and find Chileans dancing everywhere - in parks, in city squares, on beachfront promenades -
            The story of the Cueca is the courting ritual of the rooster and the hen.  The gentleman, his lady on his arm, leads her in a promenade around the dancing ground.  As the music swells, she spins loose.  Handkerchief in her upraised hand, she  flutters and flirts, looking everywhere but at the gentleman who preens and stamps, bobs and swoops, circling her with a fusillade of intricate footwork, until at last, as the music comes to a close, he kneels on one leg before her on the ground, with the lady's foot planted firmly and triumphantly upon his raised knee.

I love la cueca. My husband hates it. He feels embarrassed it´s his country´s national dance. But as I observed him during the Independence Day celebration at Olivia and Sofia´s school while all the senior year students danced, I caught him watching and smiling. Teachers performed, clapping and circling and twirling white handkerchiefs around, keeping that tension in flirtatious eye contact, while intricately stomping around with some fancy foot work. If I´d been forced to dance, I would have looked like a clod-hopping lummox.
            Finally the seniors poured into the crowd to ask their parents to dance, promenading back and forth for the next round.  Moved, I held my iphone up to record the dance, but in other festive parents stood in the way cheering and eating empanadas in huaso hats. At least something was recorded.
            Olivia ran up to my husband and said, “Papi, you´d better start practicing; soon I´ll be asking you to dance up there with me.”             He cringed. “I never learned. You´re going to have to teach me.”            Later at dinner, Olivia asked him. “What do you mean you never learned? It´s the national dance…”            “I went to a British school and believe it or not, they never taught us. It was a mistake. We were taught – not directly, of course – to look down on the cueca.            And so the cueca launched us into a discussion of cultural differences, segregation, classist attitudes, patriotism, and the pros and cons of saluting a flag.             We have several flags waving in our unconscious minds around our dining room table. On my husband´s father´s side: The British and Italian flag (and the Peruvian flag is rejected). On his mother´s side: The German and Chilean flag. On my side, it´s the American and British flags waving into history.  We have darling mutts. We each told stories of our family histories. Of the Mayflower, the wagon trains making it to Oregon, ships crossing Cape Horn, boats docking in Valparaíso, tickets purchased on trains, planes, and passenger boats. And finally, the one-way ticket I purchased to Chile in August, 1997. To give it a try. That was seventeen years ago. (Still giving it a try!)            For the 4-day weekend, most Chileans head to the beach.  But following our family history of traveling against the grain, we loaded the car with skies and headed to Portillo, located on the Chilean / Argentinian boarder in the Andes Mountains. Because of the holiday and strike on the Argentine side in customs, the usual line-up of snakes of semi-trucks had virtually disappeared. We counted 3 cars on the way up the switchbacks.             Leslie told stories of his old biking days, as if I´d forgotten any of the details; I survived them with him. The ten years he trained to keep up with his bike buds, then beat them, and then set the new record which still stands. The race took place after ridding from the Pacific ocean in Viña del Mar to the small town of Los Andes at the foothill of the mountains. The big race was the climb through a small town and wine country, up the switchbacks to Portillo, Chile´s world-famous ski center. He earned his trophy three years in a row. I was his dedicated water girl.  I was pregnant one year, carried a baby in a harness another, and a toddler dressed in a yellow jersey the third year.            We´re still living with the consequences of such a feat.             We were the fifth car in the parking lot (something to improve for next year, of course). A bluebird day of skiing. Ready for an early lunch, we headed to one of our favorite little lodges, Tio Bob´s.  You have to take a pretty steep lift to get to this rustic restaurant with a wood-burning stove and a nice grill. Maybe not to our surprise, outside, on the snow-covered terrace and magnificent view of the Andes, there was a Chilean “quincho” – or barbeque - going on with all the festivities. Red, white, and blue decorations flapping in the breeze and foreigners huddling up around tree trunk tables and heading to the buffet line for chicha, a hard alcohol made from apples, a countryside tradition, skewered beef and vegetables, homemade beef empanadas, baked potatoes, baked bread with pieces of chicharón (pork fat) and a tasty slab of beef  dabbed constantly with bunches of cilantro used as a kitchen utensil, soaked in Chilean pebre.             Before we knew it, everyone stood as they raised the flag, people sang the national anthem (my girls told me I had to learn it) and when we took our seats, the music started and everyone started clapping in unison, signaling the start of a cueca.  To my surprise, nobody came out dressed in elegant costumes. The snow was the stage. Skiers jumped up to perform my new favorite rendition: The cueca in the snow. Elegant clod-hoppers, to be sure, but that flirtatious eye contact and tension, the circling and teasing and twirling of handkerchiefs, transcended the ski bibs and goggles and was enough to make me believe that I, a true lummox in my own boots, with a touch of chicha on my breath, was as good a cueca dancer as any up there in those mountains where this dark brown earth met the bluebird sky.

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